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Santo Stefano di Sessanio: the town of Abruzzo where time has stopped

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Time seems to have stopped in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, the fascinating medieval village cherished in the mountains of Abruzzo, inside the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park. Located at 1250 meters above sea level, Santo Stefano, like many more remote mountain villages, was abandoned when its inhabitants left in search of work – historically there were 3000 souls, today only 70.

I decided to visit the village when I heard about the initiative of Daniele Kihlgren, the entrepreneur who decided to turn part of the abandoned houses into a multi-building luxury hotel, thereby generating jobs and income, and discouraging the complete depopulation of the town. This ambitious architectural project brought to life the Sextantio Albergo diffuso, a concept of accomodation also available in the city of Matera, Basilicata.

Santo Stefano is one of the most charming borgos of Abruzzo, if not all Italy. A jewel made entirely out of white limestone, that survived the damages of the 2009 earthquake.

Walking through alleys, arches and arcades is like travelling through time. The silence of the mountain, white candles burning around the stone houses, pure air and soft lights, all contibute to create an atmosphere of past times that you just can’t resist.

What to do in Santo Stefano di Sessanio

As with most medieval borgos, it doesn’t need more than one day to visit Santo Stefano. All it takes is a slow stroll around the center to see the relevant historical buildings:

  • The Torre Medicea: the tower on top of the hill built in the Middle Ages as a sighting point, so named because of the De Medici family coat of arms.
  • The Porta Medicea: the ancient gate that is still the main entrance of the town.
  • The Casa del Capitano (the house of the captain): the fifteenth-century house that got its name during the World War II, when it was occupied by the fascist squads.
  • The Palazzo delle Logge (the palace of loggias): a noble palace.
  • The case-torri or “tower-houses”: buildings with defensive purposes, characterized by thick walls and small windows.

In the surroundings there are plenty of activities to do, especially for nature lovers:

A visit to Rocca Calascio and the Curch of Santa Maria della pietà

Just a few minutes drive from Santo Stefano, or about an hour walking, you can find the magnificent Rocca Calascio, one of the highest castles in Europe. This place is so incredible that it was featured in several movies, such as Ladyhawke, The Name of the Rose, and The American. If you are driving to the rocca, you need to know that the last bit of the route is not accessible by car. Walk to the top, and enjoy the breathtaking panorama facing the small church of Santa Maria della Pietà, the eight-sided building that preceeds the castle.

Trekking in the Gran Sasso National Park

One of the most suggestive trekking routes is the number 267 that leads from Santo Stefano di Sessanio to Rocca Calascio in about an hour’s walk. The white-red marked path starts near the lake and it is almost completely treeless – you might want to bring water, hat and sunscreen in summer!

A visit to the borgo of Calascio

Calascio is another dying mountain village, fascinating but almost empty (it counts 127 inhabitants). One of the most important building in town is the Convento di Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Franciscan complex founded in 1594.

A walk around the Church of Madonna del Lago (Madonna of the Lake)

Before entering the town of Santo Stefano, a small lake and a tiny church will catch your attention: that’s the perfect spot for pic-nics and relaxing walks.

A visit to the Grotte di Stiffe (Stiffe Caves)

About half an hour from Santo Stefano, you can find the Caves of Stiffe, a complex of natural cavities with stalactite and stalagmite formations, modeled by water infiltrations originating from the mountains above. Visitors must book a guided tour, at the entrance or in advance.

Where to eat in Santo Stefano di Sessanio:

I feel confident in recommending two restaurants, both serving traditional and genuine meals:

  • La locanda sul lago a well-know structure which offers typical Abruzzese dishes, breakfast and accomodation at competitive prices.
  • La locanda sotto gli archi, the main restaurant of Sextantio, which offer seasonal and authentic meals based on what would have been available and eaten in the past. 

For the aperitivo, we had a good glass of wine and some snacks at Il Cantinone (the big cellar), which I higly reccommend for its wine selection and warm atmosphere.

Santo Stefano di Sessanio is also known for a type of lentils that grows on the slopes of Gran Sasso, so small they don’t need to be soaked in water before cooking. You can buy some in one of the town’s shop or visit the city on the 3rd and the 4th September to attend the Festival of lentils.

abruzzo lentils

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